BAR-HOP­PING

TIDE STAGE IS THE BIG­GEST KEY TO SUC­CESS­FULLY FISH­ING OYS­TER BARS

Sport Fishing - - GAME PLAN - BY STEVE WATERS

Oys­ter bars at­tract more cruis­ers than a sports pub on a Satur­day night. In fact, th­ese nat­u­ral “wa­ter­ing holes” rank as top pickup spots for many in­shore game-fish species from Mary­land to Texas. Hang out at the right time, and you’re all but guar­an­teed to catch fish.

Bait­fish and crus­taceans are also bar reg­u­lars, prompt­ing a va­ri­ety of preda­tors to take ad­van­tage of am­bush spots in and around oys­ter reefs. Choose the right tide and prop­erly present the right bait, and you’ll in­crease your odds.

TIDE TIM­ING

“Tide is crit­i­cal,” says Capt. Jor­dan Todd of Salt­wa­ter Ob­ses­sions in Port St. Joe, Florida, who fishes Apalachicola Bay in the state’s Pan­han­dle. “We have oys­ter bars in dif­fer­ent depths of wa­ter, so there are oys­ter bars that’ll be out of wa­ter on low tide and cov­ered up on high tide. Then there are oth­ers in 5 to 6 feet of wa­ter that are cov­ered up all the time.

“For red­fish, you want a low tide that’s start­ing to rise. The first half of the in­com­ing tide, those red­fish will start swim­ming into it and start feed­ing around those ex­posed bars. I nor­mally like to start fish­ing just as they start to get cov­ered up.”

Todd an­chors down-cur­rent of a bar and throws top­wa­ter plugs — chartreuseor bone-colored Ra­pala Skit­ter Walks are his fa­vorites — on top of or be­yond the bar, work­ing them back with a walk-the­dog re­trieve. He also buzzes weed­less, non­weighted soft-plas­tic pad­dle­tail lures across the top of a bar.

As the wa­ter deep­ens, Todd switches to a shrimp jig or a D.O.A. or Gulp! shrimp un­der a pop­ping cork. “A good an­gler can use a quar­ter-ounce jig head or D.O.A. shrimp, and bounce it across the bar,” he says. “Hard twitch­baits, like a Mir­rO­dine or Ra­pala Shad Rap, work very well.”

“We fish a lot of oys­ter bars when­ever we’re fish­ing for snook, red­fish and trout,” says Capt. Brian Bar­rera of South Padre Is­land, Texas, who likes to an­chor his boat by barely ex­posed oys­ter bars on a ris­ing tide in the Lower La­guna Madre bay.

“When the tide’s just high enough, big schools of mul­let will feel safe right on top of the bars, and the snook, trout and red­fish won’t have enough wa­ter on the bar to come in af­ter them. They’ll be hang­ing right around it, wait­ing to get in there.”

Bar­rera’s go-to bait in that sit­u­a­tion is a D.O.A. PT-7 top­wa­ter lure. “Since it’s weed­less and float­ing, you can get right on top of the bar. As you re­trieve it, the PT-7 looks like a mul­let ven­tur­ing off the bar, and the fish come up and ex­plode on it,” he says. “I’ll also do that with a D.O.A. C.A.L. 5.5 jerk­bait and rig it weed­less with a 6/0 screw-lock hook. You can drop that over those oys­ter beds, and it looks like an in­jured mul­let.”

LOOK ALIVE

Capt. Brian San­ders, who fishes the Ten Thousand Is­lands in Everglades Na­tional Park out of Chokolos­kee Is­land, Florida, uses live fin­ger mul­let, pilchards, threadfin her­ring and shrimp. He catches the bait­fish with a cast net and buys the shrimp.

“The oys­ter bars in Chokolos­kee serve a big pur­pose,” San­ders says. “They har­bor a lot of crabs, shrimp and small bait­fish. Rac­coons eat the crabs and shrimp at low tide, and as the tide rises, fish come in to eat them too.

“I’ve seen red­fish bel­lies that are packed full of small lit­tle crabs. It al­most seems like the red­fish use the oys­ter bars to eat the crabs.”

San­ders po­si­tions his bay boat in front of oys­ter bars over dark bot­toms with tur­tle grass. He says red­fish, snook, sharks and jack crevalles cruise over that bot­tom, and his cus­tomers also catch reds and seatrout on top of the bars where they’re mixed in with mul­let.

Oys­ter bars also at­tract black drum, sheepshead, la­dy­fish and man­grove snap­per, which will all eat a live bait­fish and a live shrimp.

“The colder months, when there’s not a lot of live bait around, fish a shrimp un­der a float on a higher tide on top of a bar, and on the edges of the bar when the tide is lower,” San­ders says.

Todd says Apalachicola Bay fea­tures a shrimp hatch in spring, so from that time into early sum­mer, he fishes live

shrimp un­der a pop­ping cork. In June, July and Au­gust, he switches to small men­haden or cut men­haden for trout; he goes back to shrimp in fall dur­ing the white shrimp hatch.

GO WITH THE FLOW

Bar-hop­ping be­gins as oys­ter reefs over­top with ris­ing wa­ter or be­come ex­posed as the tide drops. Know­ing the depths of dif­fer­ent bars al­lows an­glers to fish all of them when the con­di­tions are op­ti­mal for each.

Bar­rera prefers to fish a fall­ing tide for five or six hours, so when the wa­ter drops too low at one bar, he moves 20 or 30 yards to a deeper bar, and makes re­peated casts as he waits for the wa­ter depth to get right.

“If we hook one or two and it’s pretty fishy, we’ll stay,” Bar­rera says. “What’ll hap­pen lots of times is we catch one or two and spook the fish, and they’ll scat­ter. Then we’ll move to the next patch.”

Todd also moves to deeper oys­ter bars on a fall­ing tide and tar­gets seatrout “be­cause those trout’ll stack up on those deeper bars as the bait comes to them.”

The best bars are not solid masses of oys­ters but rather clumps of oys­ters that of­fer mul­ti­ple am­bush spots for game fish. Bars with sandy spots also can be pro­duc­tive.

“Oys­ter bars with char­ac­ter, ones that are bro­ken and have lit­tle pock­ets, tend to hold more fish,” Todd says. “I also look for bars that have breaks in them or are horse­shoe-shaped or have lit­tle holes in the mid­dle of them. The fish can stay in the holes in the bars.”

Says San­ders, “I don’t con­cen­trate on big, gi­ant oys­ter bars, but scat­tered oys­ters near a beach or an is­land.”

BAR GEAR

An­glers need tough tackle to pull hooked fish away from oys­ter bars. Bar­rera uses 20- or 25-pound lead­ers on his 10-pound braided line and 7-foot-6inch G. Loomis E6X in­shore rods when fish­ing in Texas bays. He up­grades to 30- and even 40-pound fluoro­car­bon lead­ers when fish­ing oys­ter bars.

“A 32-inch snook will pull you into the oys­ters,” he says. “I tell my clients to try to keep the fish out of the bar as much as pos­si­ble. As soon as I see it in the bar, or they feel it, I tell them to open the bail, and I’ll use my trolling mo­tor to go up to the bar and get the line out of there.”

If you do hang up on a bar, “point your fish­ing rod at it, grab the spool and pull back slowly, and you’ll usu­ally roll over the oys­ters, then the hook comes free,” says San­ders, who out­fits his south­west Florida an­glers with 7-foot rods with 3500 or 4000 spin­ning reels spooled with 20-pound braid and 40-pound fluoro­car­bon lead­ers.

Todd uses a 7-foot medium-heavy rod in the Pan­han­dle, with a 4000class spin­ning reel spooled with 20-pound braid and usu­ally a 25-pound fluoro­car­bon leader. When he’s tar­get­ing bull reds around deeper bars in 6 to 8 feet of wa­ter, he ties on 30- or 40-pound fluoro­car­bon lead­ers.

I LOOK FOR BARS THAT HAVE BREAKS IN THEM OR ARE HORSE­SHOE-SHAPED OR HAVE LIT­TLE HOLES IN THE MID­DLE OF THEM. THE FISH CAN STAY IN THE HOLES IN THE BARS.

Top: Oys­ter bars lie in dif­fer­ent depths; some are ex­posed as the tide ebbs, and some re­main sub­merged. Left: Oys­ters clus­ter, cre­at­ing struc­ture for spat (oys­ter lar­vae). Over time, an en­tire reef IRUPV 7KH UHHI GUDZV LQ EDLWƓVK DQG FUXVWDFHDQV ZKLFK EULQJ LQ JDPH ƓVK

Rough oys­ter shells grab and snag hooks. Use weed­less or pro­tected hooks, or work a top­wa­ter over a sub­merged reef.

Low tide is a great time to learn the lay of the land, so to speak. As the tide low­ers, ex­pos­ing oys­ter bars, make vis­ual note of the struc­tures and how long they re­main sub­merged.

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